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The Path To Carbon Neutral


Fareham Council followed Portsmouth, Southampton, Reading and others last month in stating that it wanted all of its activities to be carbon neutral by 2030. Portsmouth City Council has been on this path for a while, installing solar panels on schools and other public buildings, housing blocks and other properties throughout the city since 2016.This month, Portsmouth became the proud owner of the UK's largest operational Tesla Powerwall installation.

But what is a Powerwall, should you care and what does it mean for local landlords? 

Lets start by explaining the 4 Steps To Carbon Neutrality

Step 1 - Use As Little Energy As Possible

A little bit obvious but the 1st step is to use as little energy as possible. Hence the focus on insulation, now that most homes have central heating and double glazing. A new house will be well insulated and airtight – so very little heat will be required to warm the house up and then the house should stay warm meaning the energy requirement for the home will be very low compared to an old style house which breathes and as a result, leaks energy.

The challenge with older houses is to make them as energy efficient as new houses without sealing them up and risking rot and other problems related to lack of ventilation – but more on that in later articles. Until then, just remember that we need to lose as little energy from our homes as possible.

Step 2 - Use Green Energy

There are two different ideologies here – the 1st is that if a house is well insulated and has low energy appliances and other elements, then if the energy that arrives is produced from sun, wind, water or nuclear then job done, you are carbon neutral as the house will be operating efficiently and not adding carbon to the atmosphere.

For most existing houses, the fly in the ointment is the gas boiler. Some figures show that up to 28% of the UK's carbon and pollution is generated by gas boilers – so you can rest assured that their time is numbered but…..

There is an alternative which says we use north sea wind power to produce hydrogen from water and then we replace natural gas with hydrogen, city by city (in the same way that we converted to natural gas from coal gas with a phased change of burners and flues throughout the 60's and 70's), but that currently seems unlikely.

More likely is that we will just replace our gas central heating systems with air source heat pumps which are powered by electricity.At present, this does not add up as gas is cheaper and also, it is not a straight swap as current heat pumps are good at producing water at lower temperatures – so think more radiators or larger radiators but that will change as the planned 30Gw of wind power comes onstream and manufacturers improve the performance (and price) of heat pumps.

Timing is interesting. In the announced '10 point green plan' this month, the Prime Minister stated that gas boilers in new houses would be phased out by 2022. There was obviously intense lobbying by the gas industries and house builders, including very publicly Persimmon Homes, as when the policy documentation was released 2 days later, this objective had been removed.

So for most of us, the time is probably not right to throw away our gas boilers – but don't hold your breath and don't expect to be buying any new ones after some point between 2025 and 2030, given that the move to carbon neutral seems to be accelerating and with the UK based global climate change conference next year, this is definitely an area where political capital can be made from ambitious commitments.

Step 3 - Take as little energy from other sources as possible

You might think that if your properties have low energy usage and what energy they do use is coming from the grid which is supplied by 'green' sources, then job done – but the grid is an expensive bit of infrastructure and we all tend to rely upon it between 4.30pm and 11.30pm every day (with kettles up and down the land all switched on at half time in the football or in the adverts).One of the ways to ease the load on the grid is to install solar panels on your properties and to use as much of your power as possible during the day when the panels are generating power- this will smooth the demand on the grid which is important.If the average demand on the grid is, say 33.5Gw (Giga watts) as it was last week, and the peak is 45Gw, then we need the capacity nationally to produce 45Gw – whereas if we can smooth that demand and reduce it just by 10%, say to 40.5Gw at peak, then logically energy will cost 10% less as we have to produce 10% less to meet demand.(Not mathematically correct – but much of the cost is the infrastructure as opposed to the operation of the infrastructure, so any solution that requires less infrastructure will result in less energy usage).But you are probably saying, if the peak is in the evening and solar power peaks at lunchtime, that is not much help – but imagine a scenario where your electric car is plugged in and charging while you are busy at your desk after lunch and then your house is using power from your car rather than from the grid, to cook the dinner at 6pm and voila – we have suddenly smoothed demand, reduced the cost of energy and saved you money as you are cooking dinner with energy collected from the sun.This latter example depends on V2H (Vehicle to Home) power usage which is being ignored at the moment. There are trials with V2G (vehicle to grid) where the grid suppliers use your car as a remote battery and pull power from it, paying you for the benefit when they need it. This is good for the country but of debateable value for the individuals concerned unless their batteries are leased (as repeated cycles of charging and discharging will reduce the life of a car battery) – but don't ignore V2G or V2H as developments here are likely to be rapid and the changes they introduce will be significant

Step 4 -Store your excess energy

The final step on the path, for many, is to generate and store all of the energy you need such that you don't take any from the grid. In this way, you can still be carbon neutral even if some part of the supply to the grid continues to be fossil fuel based.To do this, you need batteries to store electricity you generate so that you can use it when you need it. For most, it is a lifestyle choice as the sums just don't add up – payback on a battery solution will be at least 10 years and for some, even longer.However, as the technology improves and usage increases – the economics will change as well.One of the market leaders in this space is the Tesla Powerwall – see more on Portsmouth's implementation here:

And as always, this is not the only way to carbon neutrality and you don't have to undertake the steps in this order. True, you would be mad to focus on generating or storing enough energy if you property has metal framed, single glazed louvre windows and no insulation as the energy requirement would be so high, but it is perfectly feasible to implement these steps in reverse.With 'Time of day' tariffs such as Octopus Agile, where electricity prices change every half hour and reflect current demand, electricity can be very expensive (30p per Kwh or more) at peak times but at others when there is too much electricity on the grid, Octopus will pay you (up to 10p per Kwh recently) to use the excess – so in this situation, having batteries to store electricity when you are being paid to use it changes the economics completely.

So What Should You Do?

For now, start thinking about what you need to do with each of your properties to reduce energy usage to 'near zero', to seriously consider alternatives when upgrading or replacing heating or any devices that use gas, avoid solid fuel burners however 'on trend' of pretty they are, get the roof in a condition where solar panels could sit there for 25 years without the need to remove to maintain the roof and do keep an eye on tariffs, especially time of day ones and finally,upgrades or changes to electrical installations should be done with one eye on the future need for vehicle charging. 
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